“The great adventure that began in 2011 involved an extraordinary collection of American art, estimated at 22,000 pieces, which no longer had enough space to be shown on Madison Avenue, and the creation of a building worthy of becoming its home,” says Renzo Piano, who with RPBW has done the design for the new Whitney Museum of American Art in the Meatpacking District.
A move from the Upper East Side to Lower Manhattan. “It picks up the legacy of the famous museum founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1930 in Greenwich Village, which then moved in 1966 to the building designed by Marcel Breuer and Hamilton P. Smith, between 75th Street and Madison Avenue.”
The new museum is at the corner of Gansevoort and Washington: a total of 20,500 m2, nine stories, exhibition space from the 5th to the 8th with 4500 m2 indoors and over 1200 m2 of outdoor galleries and terraces, but also a workshop, research center and theater, restaurant, cafe, store, offices and storerooms.
The particular features: slender load-bearing high-tech ties on the facade, recycled wood floors and LED lighting fixtures for the interiors, for greater sustainability, visible technical systems, six winged skylights facing south, a mega-terrace on the roof of the main gallery, for a 360° view of the panorama.
This precious container for American art, with the total permeability of its spaces, seeks a connection with the context of the High Line and the urban fabric of the Meatpacking District, on one side, and with the network formed by 10th Avenue and the Hudson River Greenway, on the other: an encounter with art that becomes an intense experience of osmosis with the environment.
The objective is achieved thanks to the design of a “dynamic and asymmetrical form” extending from east to west, raised off the ground and “resting on a glass prism that has an equal height to the High Line against which it is placed” and with which it maintains a direct visual relationship.
Like a symbolic door to the museum compound, Piano has made strategic use of the southern part of the old rail line transformed into an elevated park in the project by landscape designer James Comer and the architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro starting in 2006, connecting it to the figure of a faceted telescope of glass and steel ready to capture the finest views of the city, and the best exposure to natural light.
Seen from the south, with the larger facade on Gansevoort Street, the building is composed of a series of shifted stacked volumes, where the overhang creates a large public area next to the museum entrance.
“In my view, this is one of the strongest messages of the place: a shared plaza, because culture needs to exist in an open dimension,” the architect says. From this sort of decompression chamber on the street, one reaches the portion of the transparent glass volume that contains the entrance hall and the cafe.
In the section, it is set back with respect to the overhanging level above, which hosts the exhibition spaces for artworks; inside an opaque volume, with aluminium surfaces clad on the outside by long sheets of steel, like the upper pyramid topped by six skylights.
The other large side of the construction is totally different, to the north, with a closed, introverted appearance, though still marked by the constant of the double metal skin with gray-blue panels made by the Josef Gartner company of the Permasteelisa group.
This element of continuity of the enclosure, in the elevation oriented towards the west and the Hudson, is interrupted by two large transparent surfaces that respectively conclude and conceal the auditorium for performances and the main gallery. Finally, to the east, towards Washington Street, there is the end of the building that faces the High Line.
Here the design unleashes the engaging narrative force of a series of steel staircases (the iconic fire escapes of New York) that connect the terraces at the various levels, extending the exhibition spaces outward. One can still sense the rugged charisma of the Meatpacking District, and the forgotten rails of what is now the High Line.
in collaboration with Cooper Robertson (New York)
photos courtesy RPBW architects – text by Antonella Boisi